In concert – A week locked into Wigmore Hall

At 1pm on Monday June 1st, live music-making returned to the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3.

While we have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy live streams of music from around the world since lockdown began, this felt like something extra special. A whole month of lunchtime concerts, served up by our finest chamber music venue in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, and streamed on the Wigmore Hall website. With a selection of top class artists, all of whom live close enough to journey in and play, all that was missing was the audience – but this added extra poignancy, offering us private moments with the musicians in our own home, a deluxe version of what BBC Radio 3 has been giving us for decades. A note should be made for presenter Andrew McGregor‘s broadcasting manner, expertly paced and perfectly weighted.

The musical riches in the first week have been many and varied. The first concert was ideally placed, Steven Hough giving us Busoni’s epic realisation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor and Schumann’s lovelorn Fantasie in C major. In some performances of the Bach-Busoni the virtuoso elements of the piece take over at the expense of feeling, but not here. Hough shaped the phrases with great care, bringing out the gusto when it was needed but giving an incredibly well-balanced account of a familiar showpiece.

With Schumann’s Fantasie he gave a flowing performance of a notoriously difficult work, made all the more poignant because of its circumstances, written in isolation by a composer pining for his wife Clara. There was joy, too – the march theme of the second movement ringing out with bell-like clarity, while the resolution at the end, softly voiced, left a lasting smile.

Tuesday’s song recital from soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook had the themes of Hope and Longing – appropriately in the awful context of world events, which saw the concert begin with a two-minute period of reflection on racial inequality and violence.

Crowe began on high, judging her vibrato beautifully for Thomas Arne’s aria O ravishing delight, before three Schumann songs found her vocal control matched by her communication with the audience, in spite of the empty hall. The sound world of Berg’s 7 frühe Lieder is very different, with challenges of tricky melodic intervals and words by seven different poets, but the soprano handled them effortlessly, helped by Tilbrook’s painterly application of light and shade for the corners of Berg’s nocturnal settings.

The pair moved on to a selection of poignant folk songs, none more so than the unaccompanied She moved through the fair, before English lyrics old and new from Thomas Dunhill, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Madeline Dring. It was a touching recital with both soprano and pianist clearly on the same page.

Few guitarists would expect to receive compliments on the quality of their quiet playing…but that was what stood out immediately from Sean Shibe’s solo recital on the Wednesday. With a collection of attractive Scottish dances the listener was drawn in from the start and borne to the beauty of the Highlands, the tunes carrying on the air in performances of extraordinary intimacy.

The same could be said for Shibe’s performance of Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor, carefully studied but delighting in the expressive interplay between the parts, bringing Bach’s notes clean off the page. Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was even better, Shibe moving to a Fender to play the 12th part of this multilayered composition. The waves of sound echoing around the Wigmore as the guitarist, now barefoot, completely lost himself in the music.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist Julius Drake, both Wigmore regulars and musical partners for 40+ years, crammed their Thursday lunchtime with music old and new, all of personal significance.

They included two short premieres, the wide open textures of Huw Watkins’ haunting Arietta and the uncertainties of Michael Berkeley’s A Dark Waltz, written in lockdown. There was a rarity,too, in the first broadcast performance of Liszt’s darkly coloured Élegie, originally written for cello and piano but here in a recently unearthed version with for cor anglais.

Howard Ferguson’s arrangement for oboe and piano of Finzi’s substantial Interlude was beautifully paced and deeply felt in that slightly elusive way in which the composer writes, Drake absorbing the extra parts with ease. Meanwhile Ferguson’s arrangements of three pieces for pedal piano by Schumann studies were also nicely done. Later we heard three attractive shorter pieces from Madeline Dring, and finally Nicholas Daniel showed off the oboe’s versatility in three rewarding arrangements of popular songs, including The Girl From Ipanema and capped by All The Things You Are. A note, too, for the pair’s deeply felt and beautifully observed Bach encore, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, prefaced by a sensitive introduction.

Last but not least, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy reminded us what an intimate form of communication the piano duet can be. As the pair live together they have experienced isolation in each other’s company, and that in itself brought an extra poignancy to their lovingly played selection of BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes, a profound Schubert Impromptu in A flat from Tsoy and a bittersweet clutch of six Waltzes, Ländler & German Dances from Kolesnikov.

Together the pair enjoyed the humour and lightness of touch in Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a theme of Count Waldstein, but the best was saved for last and a wonderful performance of Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor. Recognised as one of the finest works in the piano duet repertoire, it received a performance led by Tsoy that moved from almost painful introspection to passionate outbursts five minutes later. The scherzo section had plenty of cut and thrust, while the whole piece, ideally paced, built to an almost overwhelming strength of feeling, capped by an intensely dramatic pause before the softly voiced opening theme returned.

What a musical week it has been – and looking at the roll call it looks like we are in for another three weeks of equally fine and moving insights. You can catch up with all the concerts on the links above and are strongly advised to do so, for there are some incredibly fine performances waiting to be heard. Live concerts may not be with us for a while yet, but in the meantime these intimate hours with some of our best classical music artists are an ideal substitute.

You can see the schedule for forthcoming Wigmore Hall livestreams here, the series resuming courtesy of cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen on Monday 8 June.

LSO: Always Playing – Steve Reich Quartet & Sextet tonight @ 7pm

Tonight’s installment of the LSO’s online series ‘Always Playing’ is a smaller-scale affair, as the LSO Percussion Ensemble deliver two of Steve Reich‘s more recent works for percussion.

The Sextet, a substantial work from 1993, is complemented by the Quartet completed 20 years later, a more challenging and fragmented composition.

The team – percussionists Neil Percy, Sam Walton, Gwilym Simcock, David Jackson, Simon Carrington, Philip Moore and Joseph Havlat – add works from Joe Locke (Her Sanctuary) and Makoto Ozone, Simon Carrington’s arrangement of Kato’s Revenge.

You can read more about these works in the booklet notes for the concert here – and the performances themselves, given at LSO St Luke’s across concerts in October 2015, March 2018 and February 2019, can be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7pm tonight here:

 

‘Devs’ and the power of music

by Ben Hogwood

I have just finished watching Alex Garland’s new TV series Devs, a remarkable look at the placement of humankind in history. I won’t say any more so that no spoilers are revealed, but I wanted to note the remarkable music that appears at important points in each episode.

The main ‘soundtrack’ is composed by Geoff Barrow (of Portishead fame) and Ben Salisbury, two regular collaborators with whom Garland has worked before on Ex Machina and Annihilation. If you watched and enjoyed those films then you will have to see this:

Barrow and Salisbury write music that ranges from deep, almost comforting ambience to sudden, sharp shocks that are heavily laden with menace. Around them sits a remarkable variety of music, which like the theme of the series travels between the deep and distant and recordings made just a year ago. Not many soundtracks can claim to use ancient chant, Free and Billie Eilish in the same breath!

The most striking appearance comes in the first episode from a groundbreaking album of 1994 which, like Devs, transcends time. The Hilliard Ensemble sing the ancient chant Regnantem sempiterna, which is remarkable enough, were it not for the saxophone of Jan Garbarek, soaring over the top. Garbarek improvises with pinpoint accuracy and incredible intensity. When heard with the clarity and visual craft of the pictures, the effect is almost overwhelming:

Meanwhile the music of Steve Reich comes to the fore at the beginning of the seventh episode, and not in the way you might expect. This is Come Out, the composer’s first published work from 1966. Based entirely on a four-second tape loop, it was recorded as part of a benefit event for the Harlem Six, and has one of the boys involved in the riot demonstrating how he worked to convince police he had been beaten while in jail. When Reich has finished with it, a rather disturbing work remains:

While Garland’s musical choices in Devs are key, the use of silence is also hugely important, either heightening the tension or giving the viewer room for context. In this way he makes the reappearance of music all the more meaningful. Far too many Hollywood directors feel the need to use music at every turn, but the likes of Alien have proved in the past how silence can be an asset too.

This means that when a song appears in Devs the instinct on the listener’s part is to seek it out immediately. When Guinnevere by Crosby Stills and Nash is used in the sixth episode, it works exquisitely at just the right point in the plot, heightened by the fact it was written in the same state – California – in which Devs is set:

Fifty years on, and the music of Billie Eilish carries the same understated impact. Her song ocean eyes has a remote beauty completely in keeping with some of Devs’ more clinical moments. The same illustrations can be made for contributions from Broken Bells, Patrick Cowley and especially Low, whose Congregation makes a standout appearance in the first episode.

Devs, then, comes with the strongest possible recommendation. It is thought provoking to a level that actually warps your mind, and I have to confess to some incredibly vivid dreams after watching it. Yet it is the clever and thoughtful use of music at every turn that elevates it to an even higher level.

Spotify

This playlist, created by Simon Berthel, collects the music used so effectively in Devs. The score written by Barrow and Salisbury does not appear to be available yet, but I will be snapping it up when it is!

Sound of Mind 5: Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians

Instead of a playlist, today’s Sound of Mind is a recommendation for a single, hour-long piece of music.

Few live experiences are more affirming than a complete performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a communal piece for a large ensemble of percussionists, pianists, violin, cello, clarinets and singers.

The work is a wonderful blend of set parameters and improvisation, with each musical signpost given by the metallophone in the middle – which chimes to start a new section of ideas. Reich’s ideas bubble up to the surface and generate terrific momentum, and the musical language – recognisably his own but drawing from much more primal, African origins – is wholly consonant.

Here is a brilliant live performance from the New York collective eighth blackbird, given at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Take the next hour and a bit out, and enjoy!

(Photo courtesy of Synergy Vocals)

Playlist – Sound of Mind

With the world in such a weird place at the moment, now seems like a good time to share a playlist of ambient music to ease the mind.

This one, homemade on the hoof, includes some personal favourites from Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, The Orb and a whole lot more:

I hope you enjoy it – and if you have any suggestions for future playlists please get in touch. Happy to do a whole load more!

Ben Hogwood